How sustainable is the Australian diet?

Guilt-free chocolate? Pana products are raw, vegan, organic and fair-trade.
Guilt-free chocolate? Pana products are raw, vegan, organic and fair-trade. Photo: Supplied

It goes without saying that we want our food to taste delicious. Ideally, we'd love for it to be good for us too. And now, more and more people are searching for that essential third piece of the equation - food that tastes good, is good for us and has been produced in an ethical and sustainable manner.

So what is sustainably sourced food? Sustainable food expert and business consultant Dianne McGrath explains that while there is no formal definition, sustainable food encompasses the "sourcing and provision of food that satisfies our needs today while allowing our future generations to have similar access".

"Whether you purchase private label milk or branded milk such as Dairy Farmers or Pauls, the farmer receives the same ...
"Whether you purchase private label milk or branded milk such as Dairy Farmers or Pauls, the farmer receives the same price per litre:" Tom Godfrey, Choice. Photo: Belinda Pratten

While most of us think of sustainably sourced food in environmental terms, such as the wellbeing of animals or avoidance of damaging or wasting resources, McGrath explains that sustainable food sits around many factors, including economics. She points to the ongoing situation with Australian dairy farmers who sell their milk to large dairy corporations, and who are now being paid less than it costs them to produce their milk. 

"It's about livelihood and the societal benefits of good quality food, as well as being a cultural and community issue."

While the rise of sustainable food is still relatively new, the last decade has already seen a cultural shift in the way we view food. Data from the Australian Trade and Investment Commission shows the organics industry is the fastest growing food category in Australia, more than doubling in the past 10 years. "Australia has the largest number of certified hectares of organic land available than any other country in the world, over 12 million hectares," says McGrath, who says another major change has been the resurgence insmall-scale farmers markets and people selling products locally.

"only about seven per cent of fresh food we buy comes from local farms"

"It's all about less food miles and a greater connection to our food, we're all a bit too disconnected from our food at present," she explains. "Data from the Food Alliance shows only about seven per cent of fresh food we buy comes from local farms or fresh food markets. It's all shipped in, or in some cases, actually shipped interstate for processing and then shipped back to us, which is insane!"

We're also seeing the rise of specific food products whose focus is all about sustainably sourced ingredients or production methods.

One such example is Melbourne-based Pana Chocolate. The raw, organic chocolate is a fair trade, vegan product using ethically sourced ingredients and all-Australian, 100 per cent recycled packaging.

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Another example is Coyo in Queensland, the first non-dairy coconut yoghurt to be produced. Like Pana Chocolate, it's a vegan product, with veganism one of the most sustainable ways of eating in terms of its impact on the environment.

"Coyo does a lot of work to support local farmers and their families in sustainable farming practices and the packaging is 100 per cent recyclable," says McGrath. "They don't use any chemicals or pesticides and their factory is allergen free, so they weren't just thinking of the environment, but also the health of the consumer, which is what's missing in a lot of the sustainability discussions."

Milk is obviously a hot topic in sustainability, but McGrath points out there are additional factors to be considered other than the economics.

Hands-on: Pana chocolate production.
Hands-on: Pana chocolate production. Photo: Supplied

"In Australia, the majority of our fresh milk is transported across states and there's a huge energy about that," she says. "Melbourne's Fitzroy has a tiny little suburban dairy called St David Dairy and 90 per cent of the products they produce are delivered within 6km of their factory. They're really thinking about their food miles and they also have 100 per cent renewable energy." 

Australian-owned Jasper Coffee meanwhile strives for the best conditions for their coffee growers through initiatives such as Fairtrade, the Café Feminino Project and the Yirgacheffe Kochore Project, which aids Ethiopian farmers. Along with their ethically produced coffee, their sustainability considerations filter right down to the cars they drive and the cleaning products they use.

Less universally loved than coffee and chocolate is the rise of entomophagy in Australia. For the uninitiated, that's eating insects. Suppliers such as Bugsy Bros and The Edible Bug Shop sell anything from cricket trail mix, cricket flour and cricket pasta to ants and meal worms. Why? I hear you ask. Because insects are a highly nutritious (and reportedly delicious) source or protein and far more sustainable as a food source.

Only about seven per cent of the food we buy comes from local farms.
Only about seven per cent of the food we buy comes from local farms. Photo: Jay Cronan

"To produce 1kg of cricket meat it takes roughly one litre of water. To produce 1kg of red meat (such as beef), it takes about 1500 litres of water. A lot less feed is needed as well, and less of an impact on the soil," says McGrath, who has eaten crickets daily for the past year. And with high profile chefs like Kylie Kwong and Matt Stone serving them up for the diners, who knows? Maybe crickets will become the next quinoa. The planet would certainly approve.


Five ways we can eat more sustainably

Dianne McGrath has these tips on how we can eat more sustainably (bug eating aside) :

Grow your own

Kylie Kwong introduced insects to her restaurant menu.
Kylie Kwong introduced insects to her restaurant menu. Photo: Steven Siewert

"We have a much smaller eco footprint and we waste less food when we grow our own." If you don't have space, start or join a community garden.

Eat seasonally

McGrath says we're causing many of the problems ourselves by expecting our fruit and veg to be accessible 24/7. "To make a winter veg like Brussels sprouts available year round, it's either being imported, so you've got massive food miles, or being picked under-ripe, stored and then gassed, so you've got the environmental aspect of all the energy and chemicals used."

Shop at whole food stores and farmers' markets

"You can't go past whole food stores such as The Source Bulk Foods and co-ops for sustainable produce," says McGrath. "You can usually bring your own containers and fill them with the amount of produce you want. It reduces packaging, you only buy what you need, and the stores usually tell you the providence of the products, so you can buy Australian or local."

Try urban scavenging

A great way to reduce food miles and eat seasonally is to head to websites such as Ripe Near Me. "You put in your postcode and it will show you places dotted around your suburb where you can get access to free or super-cheap produce that someone's grown in their own backyard."

Research online

There are many great websites such as the Ethical Shopping Guide app; fairtrade.com.au; Sustainable Table shares information on sustainable and organic, free-range producers; and Orangutans.com.au lists palm oil free products for consumers.